MINNEAPOLIS — The 12 French adolescents spent most of the evening standing, almost all of them dressed in matching, team-issue Timberwolves long sleeve t-shirts.
Tuesday night marked the climax of a yearlong journey, as the group of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute fans from Basket-club Nyonsais in southern France finally caught up with their favorite player. After they’d raised enough funds to come to America and see him play, Mbah a Moute’s trade from Milwaukee to Sacramento forced them to change plans. Then early this season, the Kings shipped him off again, this time to Minnesota.
The aspiring basketball players, ages 15-18, didn’t have enough money to buy new plane tickets and pay another pricey NBA admission fee. So Mbah a Moute flew them into the Twin Cities and scored them complementary seats in the Target Center’s lower bowl, behind and to the right of the Timberwolves’ bench.
"It’s a dream of all of us," beamed one of the youngsters, Lemaitre Téo.
Cheering in French and some broken English, Téo and his friends rarely took a seat during Minnesota’s 112-101 victory over Milwaukee, where Mbah a Moute spent the first five years of his career. All night, they waited for the reserve forward to enter, their anticipation reaching a crescendo when coach Rick Adelman began clearing the bench with a little less than two minutes remaining.
Mbah a Moute was the only active Timberwolves player that didn’t see the floor.
It’s been that kind of season for the 6-foot-8, 230-pound specialist who’s a prince in his native African village of Cameroon. Two new homes since July and a menial spot in Adelman’s rotations have admittedly worn on him.
"It hasn’t lived up to expectations," Mbah a Moute told FOXSportsNorth.com. "It’s been tough. It’s part of the job. It’s not always gonna be pretty."
Last summer, Mbah a Moute was preparing for another season in Milwaukee, where he’d become a fan and media favorite for his kind demeanor and gritty defense. He played a central role, too, starting at least 45 games every year (excluding the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, when he started 22 of 43 contests) and averaging 25.1 minutes, 6.9 points and 5.3 rebounds per game during his time there.
But in order to clear cap space, Bucks general manager John Hammond sent him west in exchange for a pair of future second-round draft picks. The Kings used him as a pivotal, cog, too, starting him in five of nine games after injury delayed his season debut.
But on Nov. 26, he was traded away again, this time to Minnesota in exchange for 2011 No. 2 overall draft pick Derrick Williams.
Not exactly according to plan.
"It’s just been a different season for me," Mbah a Moute said. "As a player, it’s hard to be in that kind of situation. You’ve got to learn how to work with that and try to make the best out of the situation."
But at least in Milwaukee and Sacramento, he had a meaningful spot. The Timberwolves, though struggling, aren’t in dire shape like those two franchises, which have a combined 35 wins this year and sit in last place in their conferences.
With Kevin Love and Dante Cunningham at power forward and Corey Brewer, Chase Budinger and emerging rookie Shabazz Muhammad on the wing, even the versatile Mbah a Moute, who can play the three and the four, hasn’t found his way into the mix. His liabilities as a scorer — 6.4 points per game — make it even more difficult for Adelman to insert him, save for when the second unit needs a lockdown defender on the floor.
"You’re trying to play the people that give us the best opportunity to win," Adelman said. "It’s as simple as that. . . . I think if someone establishes himself at a spot and is playing consistent, it’s a pretty easy decision."
(Williams, by the way, is averaging 9.4 points and 4.8 rebounds in 25.5 minutes per game with the Kings.)
Injuries and inconsistent bench play have further muddled Adelman’s in-game personnel decisions, meaning third-tier guys like Mbah a Moute aren’t sure when they’ll be called upon and when they’ll sit dormant.
That’s the most frustrating facet.
"Just the inconsistency with everything," said Mbah a Moute, who’s averaging 14.7 minutes, 4.9 points and 2.4 rebounds for Minnesota. "But that’s something that’s expected, I should say, when you come to a new team."
It hasn’t been a completely busted experience, though.
Mbah a Moute has been reunited with several old friends on his current roster. He played against Corey Brewer frequently in college, has two fellow UCLA alums on the team in Kevin Love and Shabazz Muhammad and knows centers Ronny Turiaf and Gorgui Dieng through his international connections.
Turiaf and Mbah a Moute have crossed paths in France, where they spend ample offseason time, and Mbah a Moute first met Dieng at a Basketball Without Borders Camp in Africa a few years ago and has followed his career ever since.
All three speak French.
"The guys have been great, man," Mbah a Moute said. "They’ve been good, trying to welcome me on the team. It’s been good. There’s some familiarity with the guys.
"That’s become easier on my end."
And then there are weeks like this one.
When Mbah a Moute found out about the French group, he said he had no choice but to help them out in their quest to see him play. They and their chaperones arrived in Minneapolis on Monday and were treated to dinner with Mbah a Moute and Turiaf that evening.
Before Tuesday’s game, Mbah a Moute showed them around the Target Center, posing for pictures with them in front of his locker.
His happiness — in that moment, at least — was unmistakable, given the ear-to-ear grin on his face.
"That always brings a smile in a tough season, having those kids come out," said Mbah a Moute, who is under contract through next season. "It’s fun; I’ve known about these kids since last year, but to have it actually happen is pretty special."